Beethoven Septet in E flat, op. 20

performed by members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet, or as below, by people you may recognize

(cover image by Christopher Harris)

Say goodbye to Beethoven.

At least for a few weeks. We’re working our way through the earlier pieces of Beethoven as well, and ‘catching up’ to some of the late works we’ve already discussed.

The septet was completed 1800, and is dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa, “the last Holy Roman Empress and the first Empress of Austria by marriage to Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor.” It’s scored for a clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and bass, and is in six movements, as below, with a duration of around 40 minutes:

  1. Adagio – Allegro con brio (in E-flat major) (approx. 10 min.)
  2. Adagio cantabile (in A-flat major) (approx. 9 min.)
  3. Tempo di menuetto (in E-flat major) (approx. 3 min.)
  4. Tema con variazioni: Andante (in B-flat major) (approx. 7 min.)
  5. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace (in E-flat major) (approx. 3 min.)
  6. Andante con moto alla marcia (in E-flat minor) – Presto (in E-flat major) (approx. 7 min.)

This work, suitable for the long stretch of pieces from Mozart that we did, is in the style of a serenade. How do we know this, in case you missed the past six weeks of posts?

For one, there are a lot of movements, more than the typical three or four for chamber or symphonic pieces of the time. You’ll see the third and fifth movements are dance-type movements. Mozart (and others) included two, sometimes three minuets in his serenades or divertimenti, but Beethoven swaps the second one out for a scherzo. Also, we have the fourth movement, a theme and variations, which may give us an indication that this piece is lighter than the more serious tones of the op. 18 quartets.

We see also the continuation of the interest in having woodwinds present for chamber music, but this is, as we’ve said, a slightly larger setting. I don’t really want to talk much in this article about the work in terms of the typical play-by-play, though. Rather, I’d prefer to talk about the brilliant balance the budding composer strikes between the casual and the serious, the large and the small. (In fact, Richard Freed, writing for the Kennedy Center, says that “All six movements are too straightforward to require analysis, but it may be noted that the third movement, always the most popular section of the work.” Okay.)

Despite earning the opus number 20, this work came before the op. 18 string quartets, or at least was composed around the same time, as a few of them, but was not composed after all six of the string quartets were completed. But as compared to the op. 11 clarinet trio, it’s a more developed work, in a larger form, but isn’t as ambitious or groundbreaking as the string quartets.

The first movement, for example, the longest movement of the work (just slightly longer than the second movement) is in sonata form, but begins with an adagio introduction that seems for moments as if it’s fading into melancholy. The jubilant allegro con brio arrives and both themes are bright and playful, with great color from the ensemble and a few spots of clean, crisp bite. The development section is made up mostly of the first theme, and this strikes me as a characteristic of ‘simpler’ sonata form movements, that don’t give as much of the tumult and conflict before resolving. That’s fine, though, also because it’s quite a short development.

The second movement gives us mostly clarinet and violin, and is more akin to the spirit of the first movement’s adagio. This movement could really nearly be right out of a symphony if it were just beefed up with strings a little bit. It has at times a round ensemble texture, but mostly is transparent and serene, but I wouldn’t mind if it were half as long.

The third movement is the minuet, and if you know your stuff it’ll sound familiar; if not, have a listen below to this part of Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 20, op. 49 no. 2, which was actually written before this piece, despite the high numbers. The theme has been borrowed.

The fourth movement is another theme and variations, which is actually longer than the finale of op. 11. Freed does tell us that “the theme of the splendid set of variations that constitutes the fourth movement became one of the several Beethoven melodies adapted for use as songs by other musicians.”

The fifth movement is where we’d expect another minuet to be in a divertimento or serenade, but instead we have a scherzo, only slightly more lively. We have two trios here, and James Reel says it is “a vigorous piece with a hint of the hunt about it, thanks to the little figure played by the horn at the beginning.”

The finale maintains the proportions of this work, even if it is a bit shorter, beginning, as did the first movement, with a slow introduction, but we do get to the presto and eventually a violin cadenza.

It’s a piece that has a lot to offer both in enjoyment and insight, and on whatever level or in whatever way you decide to approach it, it has something that should tickle your fancy. This will be all for Beethoven for the rest (as in the remaining week) of 2018, but stay tuned for lots more, hopefully uploaded on time, and thanks so much for reading.

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